The Press' Email Narrative Now Has A Colin Powell Problem

Thanks to the release this week of a January 2009 email from Colin Powell to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we now know definitively that the former Republican secretary of state advised Clinton on the wisdom of using private emails during her time at the State Department. We know that Powell thought it was fine to use that private email account to bypass State Department servers to communicate with friends and even “foreign leaders.”

We know Powell advised Clinton on how to circumvent federal records requirements while she was secretary of state: “Be very careful. … I got around it all by not saying much and not using systems that captured the data.” We know that while Clinton used private email for convenience, she didn't follow Powell's lead in seeking to deliberately use systems that avoided future public disclosures.

The Republican also complained that State Department officials didn’t want him using his PDA, what he termed an “ancient version” of Clinton's Blackberry: “[T]hey gave me all kinds of nonsense about how they gave out signals and could be read by spies, etc." But Powell said he ignored those warnings and used his PDA in his office suite.

As for the whereabouts of Powell’s own emails from his time at the State Department, “during his tenure, Powell had sent classified emails over his private AOL account - but as of July, had still not responded to a request to contact his service provider to retrieve them,” according to USA Today. “In both 2014 and 2015, the State Department asked Powell to provide all of his records that were not in the agency’s record-keeping system.” As Powell's email to Clinton suggested, he no longer has the emails from his personal account; the records of those communications with national and international leaders during his tenure as secretary of state are gone. (Powell defends the contents of his email to Clinton.)

That limbo status stands in sharp contrast to extraordinary scrutiny the press and Republicans have placed on Clinton’s private account emails, tens of thousands of which she voluntarily turned over to the government and have since been released to the public.

These helpful Powell revelations provide some welcome context to the email story. They also raise questions about how the press will deal with the new information, and why the press has seemed so uninterested in including the context of Powell's actions over the last year-and-a-half as it relentlessly pursued the Clinton email “scandal” story.

Keep in mind that we’ve known for quite a while that Powell used a private email account while serving secretary of state. And since March, we’ve known that Powell “handled classified material on unclassified email systems,” according to ABC News, and that some of Powell’s emails contained “information classified at the Secret or Confidential levels.'” 

Yet for the most part, Powell’s name has been invoked sparingly by the media, despite the avalanche of Clinton email coverage and commentary.

Why the omission? I think it’s because including context about Powell and how previous secretaries of state handled their electronic communication undermines the media’s longstanding narrative about the current email story. The press has clung to the idea that it is uniquely and unequivocally about Hillary Clinton, and the reason it’s so important, and why it requires so much attention, is that it illustrated how Hillary Clinton, and Hillary Clinton alone, is secretive and tries to obfuscate the rules.

Except that’s just not true.

Is Powell absolutely central to the Clinton email story? No. Does his experience radically alter the contours of Clinton’s actions, for which she has repeatedly apologized? It does not. But does Powell’s email past provide much-needed and often missing context to the press’ Clinton email narrative? It sure does.

“To liken her to Powell does not excuse Clinton’s behavior or imply the media should ignore it. It contextualizes it,” wrote Jonathan Chait at New York, following the release of Powell’s 2009 correspondence to Clinton. “And the context suggests that Clinton committed ordinary lapses of ethics and judgment.”

Correct. But if Clinton’s supposedly guilty of “ordinary lapses of ethics and judgment,” how does the press justify continuing to treat the email story like Watergate-meets-Iran Contra, even after the FBI has concluded there is no evidence of illegality?

Again, Powell’s inclusion in the story flattens and normalizes the narrative. Powell’s inclusion signals to news consumers that Clinton’s actions maybe weren’t so scandalous. In fact, maybe they weren’t even newsworthy.

In other words, Powell ruins the plot. That’s why the press has leaned over in a concerted effort to not provide helpful context in terms of how other prominent public officials archive their emails.

The Clinton email pursuit, the press decided long ago, is best told in a vacuum. But now that vacuum has been breached.

How is the press responding to the release of Powell’s eye-opening email to Clinton? On Thursday, CNN did describe it as a “major bombshell,” so it’s not as if the story is being actively ignored. But I’d argue that in comparison to the never-ending, steroid-fueled pursuit of Clinton, the Powell story certainly is in no danger of being over-played by the press.

It's true that the Powell email was referenced in the FBI report released last week, and most news organizations covered it then. But in terms of the entire email being released and the important, additional context it provides to the email saga, there has been some notable silence. For instance, the Powell email was released Wednesday afternoon and as of today, The New York Times newsroom still hasn’t acknowledged that fact or detailed for readers what counsel Powell gave Clinton. Thursday’s Washington Post did cover the Powell news Thursday, but in a brief, 400-word article that appeared on page six. (A Post editorial in Friday's newspaper admonishes the press for making too much of the Clinton email saga.) A handful of major newspapers also covered the Powell story, but none of them put the story on their front page, according to a Nexis search.

A footnote. The Powell email revelation is, for the most part, being treated as a footnote that journalists don’t want news consumers focusing on.